A SIM cards vendor (C) operating a stall in Amritsar on Monday invites his customers to purchase Airtel as an alternative to Jio as farmers protest against giant corporations including Jio's owner, Reliance. Photo: AFP/Narinder Nanu

Telecom companies are now hurling allegations and counter-allegations after farmers started venting their anger at India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani and his businesses – they see him and Gautam Adani as the main beneficiaries of the proposed farm bills.

Nearly 1,500 towers belonging to Ambani’s Reliance Jio, India’s leading player in terms of subscriber base, have been interfered with by agitators in the state of Punjab.

Reliance Jio has complained to the Department of Telecommunications and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, accusing rivals Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea of trying to sabotage its network under the guise of the farmers’ protest.

“As a result of false and frivolous communication that Reliance will be an undue beneficiary of the farm bills passed by Parliament, Reliance Jio’s telecommunications network is being targeted by the protesters and the same is being disrupted and permanently damaged,” Reliance Jio said.

The telecom giant claimed there was an outage in its 1,504 towers in Punjab – nearly 15% of the total number of its towers in the state – and 85 towers in neighboring Haryana state. These towers have suffered physical damage, power disruptions or the theft of generators, and the company fears that similar attempts are being made in other states.

Charges denied

Bharti Airtel has written to the telecom department, slamming the charges raised by Reliance Jio, which it called baseless and outrageous. In its letter, it said Reliance Jio had not provided any evidence to substantiate its allegations against its rivals.

The complaint should be dismissed “with the contempt that it deserves,” it said.

A Vodafone Idea spokesperson also deplored the “false and baseless allegations” made by Reliance Jio. “Vodafone Idea will never be part of any such activity which has an impact on network installations of any operator in the country. It seems a fictional conspiracy theory to implicate and cause damage to VIL,” the company said.

It condemned the acts of vandalism against the telecom infrastructure, which is said also disrupted essential services.

Reliance Jio also demanded that the mobile number portability process in Punjab and Haryana be suspended until the situation stabilizes. On various social media platforms, people are running campaigns urging users to junk Reliance Jio mobile phone connections and avoid patronizing Reliance retail outlets.

On Twitter, they are running hashtags like #boycottJiosim and #BoycottAmbaniAdani. This has led to a rise in users seeking to move to other networks.

Earlier, Reliance Jio had complained to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, accusing its rivals of running an unethical and anti-competitive Mobile Number Portability campaign to capitalize on the ongoing farmer protests.

“They are inciting the public by making preposterous claims that migrating Jio mobile numbers to their networks would be an act of support to farmers’ protests,” Reliance Jio’s letter had stated.

Both Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea rubbished the allegations.

In a recent report released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority, Reliance Jio continued to be the largest player in the country with a subscriber market share of 35.2% in September and a revenue market share of 38.2% in the second quarter.

However, Bharti Airtel has upstaged Reliance Jio in new subscriber additions for the month of September by adding 3.8 million new subscribers, while Reliance Jio added 1.5 million. Vodafone Idea registered a dip of 3.5 million subscribers in September.

Farmer unions have been protesting against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent changes in agrarian laws for over a month. They feel the new laws will deprive them of bargaining power for their produce and farmers will be at the mercy of predatory pricing by agri-business corporations.

Thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states have congregated on the outskirts of New Delhi. They want the laws to be completely repealed and talks with the government have so far not been fruitful.